Longtime member Kate Munning weighs in on what CSA membership means to her.
Everyone and their brother seems to be running a CSA these days. And yet when I talk to friends and family about my CSA, I often get blank stares and hear crickets. A lot of people aren’t familiar with the term “CSA”—even those who might be interested in joining one.
First of all, “CSA” stands for “community supported agriculture.” But what does that even mean? Technically, it’s a farm that’s supported by the community; you buy a share in the spring to pay for seeds, equipment, and the farmers’ labor, and then you receive a share of the harvest throughout the growing season. In New Jersey where I live, most CSAs run through November, but I’m lucky to belong to one of the few that goes year round. (And let me tell you, the veggies coming out of the root cellar and the greenhouse in winter are some of my favorites. Local spinach in February tastes miraculous.)
One thing that’s confusing is the sheer number of CSAs out there right now. It’s a trendy term, and not all are created equal. The one I used to belong to was more of a buying club where I picked up a box of fruits and vegetables once a week. It was okay, but not everything was grown locally, and I prefer to serve my family food that’s grown without pesticides. So I did my research and found a place I’m over the moon about. We joined the Community Supported Garden at Genesis Farm five years ago and never looked back.
CSAs can be intimidating at first glance. My friends ask: Aren’t they expensive? What do you do with all those weird vegetables? Why not just visit the farmers’ market? Isn’t it bothersome to drive out to the farm every week? Those questions are all valid. A CSA isn’t for everyone. But if you like to cook, if you eat a plant-based or whole foods-based diet, if you want to support local agriculture, or if you want to be confident about where your food comes from and how its grown, then joining a genuine CSA can be a game-changer. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.
- Not all carrots are created equal.
When I made the switch from veggie box to CSA, my aim was to get local, seasonal produce grown without chemicals to feed my family. What I didn’t expect was the difference in flavor. Holy cow! We’re now eating the most flavorful beets and sweet potatoes I’ve ever tasted, and I’ll never go back. The tomatoes and peppers are harvested just a couple of hours before we pick them up, so they get to fully ripen on the vine—and it shows in the flavor. My kids refuse to eat carrots from the grocery store anymore because they taste so bland in comparison to the ones from our CSA.
- Initial investment, long-term payoff.
Like many, I experienced sticker shock when I saw the price for a CSA share. It’s a big number! But when I forced myself to sit down and do the math, I realized that the real cost is about $35 per week. Do you know how easy it is to spend $35 on organic fruits and vegetables at the supermarket? (Answer: VERY easy. That’ll get you a few apples and heads of broccoli.) Not to mention the fact that the produce I’m getting is grown locally by someone I know, so I can be confident in the high quality and impeccable farming methods. Heck, my farmers encourage me to visit the field where they grown our lettuce. And there are lots of perks included in membership, like pick-your-own fruit, flowers, and any veggies that are particularly abundant in a given season.
- It’s not just about the veggies.
I didn’t realize that I could get locally produced honey, maple syrup, dry beans, corn meal, eggs, cider vinegar, and flour so easily. I had been scouring the shelves at Whole Foods and the health food store, often coming up empty-handed, and these staples are right in the distribution center when I pick up my share every week! Many of these add-on items are produced by the CSA, and the rest are from nearby farms. I would never have otherwise known about these other little specialty farms right in my own neighborhood, and I can be confident that these products are impeccably sourced. Not only are my CSA’s standards for quality sky high, but my farmers are proud to sell their friends’ products and tell you all about them.
- I became a better cook.
It’s not just kids who won’t eat their vegetables. Confession: There were plenty of veggies I thought I didn’t like when I first joined our CSA—beets, celeriac, escarole. Thanks to encouragement from the farmers, tips exchanged with other members in the distribution center, our CSA’s Facebook recipe group, and the cooking classes and demonstrations hosted by the farm, I’m proud to say that the range of vegetables I’m comfortable cooking has broadened immensely. Who knew my kids would be so excited to bring neon-pink watermelon radishes to school for lunch? Also, that aforementioned escarole makes a terrific soup with white beans and parmesan.
- Food makes friends.
Seeing the same friendly faces week after week, rummaging through bins of kale and corn together, you’re bound to make some connections. Visiting our CSA isn’t just about the food (although the food is amazing)—it’s about the people, too. My kids find playmates, I find like-minded cooks and meet folks I didn’t even know were my neighbors. Finding that connection has been surprisingly satisfying, since it’s not easy to make friends as a busy grown-up with all the responsibilities and the schedule that come with a job and a family. Our CSA also has events throughout the year like pot-luck dinners, an Earth Day celebration, farm-to-table feasts, and family-friendly concerts that have allowed us to nurture these chance meetings into friendships. I didn’t expect to become part of a community, but here I am bringing a big pot of butternut squash soup to share at the harvest festival.
- The farm gave me a sense of place.
We’re all in such a hurry these days, rushing from point A to point B. I dash through the grocery store in 11 minutes to pick up precisely what I need so I can get home in time to meet the school bus. My CSA serves the same purpose in some ways, but not long after I joined I realized I was planning my day to spend more time there—to hear news from the farmers, swap recipes with fellow members, make sure I have enough time to walk up the hill to pick some precious golden raspberries and see how my favorite red peppers are coming along. I find myself taking deep breaths and drinking in the landscape. Attending community events. Bringing my kids to plant seeds, shell beans, and press cider from apples picked from the trees right over there. Of course there are days when I’m running behind schedule and have to pick up my share and go, waving to everyone as I dash past. But I know the farm is there for me, just as I’m there for my CSA when I renew my membership every year. We need each other, and I like it that way.